“Gertrude, do not drink,” Claudius urges in the final scene of Hamlet, as Gertrude unwittingly raises the poisoned cup intended for Hamlet to her lips. ‘“I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.” She drinks.’ There was an audible intake of breath on the third row of the temporary seating erected for this afternoon’s performance of Hamlet at Nauru College, from a Hezari refugee seated next to his case worker. He realised that Gertrude, played in this performance by Miranda Foster, was about to become the innocent victim of Claudius’s machinations.
This was Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of Hamlet, which embarked on a two-year project to perform in every country in the world. Shakespeare’s Globe Research Department and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions collaborated to provide funding and access for further audience research to be carried out on the local response to this production in seven countries in Oceania and East Asia. A Globe Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Malcolm Cocks, had already embarked on this audience research project covering the audience response throughout Africa.
I accompanied the tour to its performances in Geelong, Australia; Wellington and Auckland in New Zealand; Nauru, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Islands; and Korea and Japan in East Asia. I have since done work on its reception in Singapore, Jordan, Syria and Turkey.
Hamlet is an English-language production, with 12 actors, each of whom can perform several characters from the play. (There are so many potential combinations that 20 months into the tour some configurations have still only been performed once or twice). There are four virtuosic stage managers. One or two of the cast for each performance learn some phrases in the main language of the country they are performing in, which always receives a warm welcome.
Often the company’s performance is reciprocated by their local hosts with a performance of their own: a piece of theatre (for instance, a production of a new work in Bislama at the Wan Smolbag Theatre in Port Vila, Vanuatu); some dancing (several of the Pacific Island nations reciprocated with dance performances, including on Nauru); singing (the Maori community who welcomed the company, and its famous Maori actor Rawiri Paratene, to the New Zealand Arts Festival in Wellington, sang for the company); the Syrian refugees who came to an after-show event at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan sang a Syrian folk song for the company – the audio for this can be heard as the accompaniment to this Guardian photojournalism article.
The company’s hosts are often keen to show the company something of their country. The company went for a drive along the Great Ocean Road whilst visiting Australia and were taken out on a boat for some dolphin-watching. In other countries what the company are asked to bear witness to is more harrowing. They have visited massacre sites in Srebrenica and Rwanda, and the Killing Fields in Cambodia. A reciprocity of acts of witnessing, feeling and responding informs the local, intercultural nature of this tour.
The audience research was conducted, in accordance with methods developed in previous theatre audience research, by means of a paper survey (an online version can be found here); individual audio or video interviews (a selection of these can be seen here); and through observation and contextualisation. I have compiled data for the varying laughter patterns of the different audiences, some notation of audience coughing patterns, audience’s entrance and exiting patterns and fidgeting. In each country, the local audience response is contextualised through analysis of the particular political, social, religious and cultural moment in which this performance participates, drawing on local newspapers and conversations, as well as background research. I also carry out research into the venue, its personnel and programming, and seek to establish their impression of the audience for Hamlet as opposed to the audiences that otherwise attend events at the venue. This data is being compiled and analysed as part of an on-going book project: Guilty Creatures: Global Audiences for Hamlet.
The opportunity to accompany the Hamlet tour to Nauru was exceptional. It was not straightforward as a British citizen and Australian permanent resident to get a visa. The company were met on the ground with a great painted banner at the airport made by students from Nauru College to welcome them on Sunday 14 June 2015, a warm and rainy day, when we arrived.
The performance the following day was attended by about 400 people in the open-air school yard at the college in Denigomodu District. These represented an unusual mix of the inhabitants of this island, who would rarely at other times find themselves in the same place at the same time. The front row included Nauruan Government Ministers – including the Hon. Charmaine Scotty, the Minister for Education, who opened the performance with a speech about Nauruan engagement with Shakespeare at school and through movies. Members of the Australian High Commission on Nauru also took up seats on the front row. In the rows behind them were seated 30 or 40 asylum seekers, more men than women, who had been granted refugee status, as well as the Connect Services workers who support them. There were some of the security guards from the Processing Camp run by Transfield Mining. The rest of the audience was made up of Nauruans of all ages. There were lots of students from Nauru College, and toddlers, babes in arms, grandparents. The whole family was there for this free and unusual event.
At this point, in mid-June 2015, according to the government’s records, there were about 600 people seeking asylum in Australia who were being held on Nauru, of which over 100 were children. I had not been granted permission to enter the Processing Centre on the island, but the company and I were invited to participate in one of the English classes offered to refugees in the Settlement Camp.
Drama is not a part of Nauruan culture. Nauruans love music and film, hold dance events and have a couple of noted poets, but for many of the Nauruans in the audience this was the very first play they had ever seen. English is one of the main languages on the island, but the fast pace of this production and the poetic and old English it is written in presented a challenge to comprehension. There were no surtitles. The company moved amongst the audience at the start, introducing themselves as everyone settled and showing them their instruments and their swords. One group of boys tried playing Phoebe Fildes’ violin, whilst others pressed the keys on Amanda Wilkin’s accordion. The performance began in earnest on the chilly battlements of Elsinore, whilst we sweltered in the damp heat of a Pacific Island and the sky grew darker and threatened rain. One of the audience members I interviewed told me that the appearance of the ghost had been particularly memorable. This kind of haunting and the thirst for revenge was something recognisable and affective across cultures and history. At various points audience attention wavered. At one point some boys began to play basketball in part of the school yard. But the collective focus was vividly caught again by the scenes in which Claudius fails to attempt to offer penitence, in which Ophelia’s dead body was carried on stage and buried; and by the fatal duel fought between Laertes and Hamlet. Small children watched in complete fixation as these strangely-dressed British actors replayed this story for them, even when, in the final act, it finally began to rain.
Question six on the audience survey asks: ‘did the play make you think of anything relevant in the news or in your country?’ The answers the audiences gave reflected their very different perspectives. A student from the college wrote that the play had brought to mind: ‘a RIOT in Nauru between the refugees and us Nauruans’ [emphasis in the original]. An immigration services worker wrote: ‘nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so’: very relevant to immigration issues.
Nauruans are very religious; the performance was preceded by a prayer led by one of the island’s Christian ministers. One of the Nauruan government workers responded to this question suggesting what connected this performance to her experience of Nauru was ‘the brave heart of Hamlet and his faith’.
Nauru has defaulted on millions of dollars worth of bonds in the past decade, has failed to pay its electricity bill, and has had its assets frozen by Westpac; it has teetered on the brink of total bankruptcy on several occasions. Its population, once the wealthiest per capita in the world through phosphate mining, now suffer chronic health problems, have limited education, and very few resources on the island. Food and water supplies are brought by container to the island and may not always be offloaded successfully. Perhaps inevitably the country has experienced much political turmoil and corruption.
There was much in Hamlet’s tale of prison states, corruption, surveillance and despair that spoke to the assembled audience, both Nauruans and refugees. A case worker said afterwards he was relieved that no-one committed suicide on stage, because that might have been too much to bear – too close to home – for the refugees sitting around him with whose stories and experiences he was only too familiar. Island poet and Nauru College teacher, Joanne Gobure’s poem, ‘A Beautiful Prayer’, offers some insight into other affective experiential overlaps for Nauruans with the events and emotional landscape of Hamlet.
The day after the performance there was a protest outside Parliament House in the Yaren District opposite the airfield. One anonymous charity worker told me that the Nauruans have not generally held protests in the past. He felt the example the refugees have set has perhaps influenced this new civic behaviour. President Baron Waqa’s son was pulled from his car and several policemen were injured. We were encouraged not to stray too far from Menen District where our hotel was based because of its proximity to Yaren.
I spoke to Abdullah, a Hezari Refugee, the morning we left the island. He said that he had been very ‘happy’ to see the show. It was the first time anything like that had happened on the island in the three years he has been held there, after being moved from Christmas Island. He was really pleased to see the actors, particularly Naeem Hayat, the British-Pakistani actor who played Hamlet in this performance, and he was extremely glad to hear them play music. He didn’t recognise all of their instruments but he thought the playing was really good. If Hamlet provided some small window of happiness, some breath of engagement from the outside world, some small space to recognise and process hardship, then I am glad. It was heart-breaking to leave this island and the inhabitants who had showed us such warmth and hospitality, but who had also confided some terrible personal accounts of life there.
After we had boarded the small plane to go back to Brisbane, with a straggling, colourful group of protesters still visible across the airstrip outside Parliament House, a tannoy announcement asked us to disembark because of a ‘technical problem’. When we re-boarded the plane the Nauruan opposition minister, Roland Kun, who lives with his family in New Zealand, had been removed. He was detained on the island pending a hearing that was delayed until October 2015. New Zealand suspended funding to Nauru in an attempt to enforce Kun’s right to representation and a fair trial. I have not heard what has happened since.
The touring performances of Hamlet intersect vividly with local events and atmospheres, frequently offering uncannily acute reflections on political moments – such as the performance on the eve of the elections in the Ukraine in 2014 – or coinciding with religious festivals around the spirits of family members and their wellbeing or discomfort – such as the Buddhist Bon Festival in Japan and Ghost Month, the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which coincided with performances in both Hong Kong and Singapore. These offer exceptional intercultural audience research opportunities, making vividly apparent how significant the role of the audience is as the co-creator of a performance event. The actors find the words and their meaning taken out of their control as they utter them, becoming aware of how differently resonant and significant it is to talk of succession fears and border disputes in performances in Burundi and Eritrea, in Eastern Europe, in the West Bank. They are suddenly aware, holding the skull aloft, that this trope of Western theatre is powerfully and differently moving in Rwanda and Cambodia, where the language of human skulls is acutely personal and nationally significant.
Penelope Woods was until recently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions and is now a Lecturer in the Drama Department at Queen Mary, University of London. She will be launching a website shortly to share some of these stories and some of the audience data collected so far. Please contact her at P.email@example.com if you have seen the performance and would be interested to discuss your experience further.